The following piece is part of the Quest’s new series featuring final projects of Minerva students. This piece was written for Minerva’s Arts and Social Change course by Chris Hagan, Minerva Class of 2020. To view more final projects, click here. If you are a Minerva student and would like to have your final project published, fill out this form.
Design vs. Art
In a society where the average US consumer spends five hours a day staring at the screen of their smartphone (Perez, 2017), the most important artistic influence on social behaviour is UI and UX design. UI/UX designers create the “interfaces” and “experiences” that mediate our relationship with our devices, responsible for everything from in-app functionality, to visual screen layout, all the way down to individual pixel placement. In this paper, I will argue that UI/UX design is applied art for social change. The UI/UX designers of today are artists who use their abilities to prescribe individual and societal behavioural responses, generating large-scale social change through small-scale design choices.
To begin, it is important to define the distinction between “design” and “art”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (‘Art’, 2018) while design is defined as “the art or process of deciding how something will look, work, etc” (‘Design’, 2018). Importantly, “design” stems from the Latin word “signum”, which meant “to sign, prompt, or signal” (‘Design’, 2018). This etymological root hints at the distinction. Design is made to signal a certain desired response, or to prompt a specific behaviour. It takes the ability component of “art”, the visual composition of shapes, lines, and colours, and applies it for a distinctly different purpose. In other words, design is art with prescriptive intention. ‘Good art’ leaves room for interpretation, and creates a wide variety of responses, whereas ‘good design’ (ideally) creates the same response in everyone that interacts with it, leaving no room for interpretation. Through this lens of intentionality, design is the ultimate manifestation of art for social change.
For the purpose of this essay, I will define use the Britannica definition of ‘social change’ as “the alteration of mechanisms within the social structure, characterized by changes in cultural symbols, rules of behaviour, social organizations, or value systems” (‘Social Change’, 2018). This includes social change instigated by the run-on effects of individual behavioural change, a notion that will become increasingly important as this paper progresses.
To demonstrate the impact of design as a form of social change, I will focus on a piece of UI/UX design that 1.15 billion people in the world use on a daily basis: the Facebook mobile app (Noyes, 2018). Facebook designers are some of the best in the world at generating specific behavioural responses through intentional design choices. Whether through scrolling functionality that borrows psychological design principles from slot machines, or notification colour choices that prompt a specific neurological response, Facebook designers build invisible features into their app that have enormous individual and societal repercussions.
Before examining two specific examples of how Facebook designers do this, I want to first consider what Facebook designers are seeking to achieve. While “both design and art are forms of communication” (Vladimir, 2017), they differ in their intentionality, as mentioned in the introduction. Bruno Latour’s influential 1988 paper ‘Mixing Humans with Non-Humans: Sociology of a Door-Closer’, written under the pseudonym Jim Johnson, refers to designs as “prescriptions” (Latour, 1988). Essentially, designers build behavioural prescriptions into the products they create, crafted to catalyse a highly specific response, or as Latour puts it, input behaviour into a machine so that “the behaviour [is] imposed back onto the human by nonhuman delegates” (Latour, 1988).
To further articulate why this represents a different intention to ‘art’, consider this example. If you type into Google “what does the mona lisa mean”, you’ll get 505,000 results. Do the same thing with Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ and that number will jump to 1,860,000. As you can see, some of the most famous artworks in the world are also some of the most interpretable, undefined artefacts in our collective cultural consciousness. Let’s contrast this with design. In his 1988 book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, Don Norman discusses the door. A piece of design that you use every single day, without giving it a second thought, until you have the embarrassing experience of pushing a pull door. You only notice a door when it fails to do its job: letting you through without you having to expend any mental energy in using it. A door that fails to do this, now commonly known as a ‘Norman Door’, is noticeable because it doesn’t prompt the correct – or intentional – response. Norman notes in his book that “good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible” (Norman, 1988). The ideal piece of design leads to a predictable behavioural response, in which the interpretation is the same for everyone. The ideal piece of art, (if one can be said to exist), creates different interpretations for each person who observes it. This is where the key distinction between art and design lies, and is also the space in which the designers at Facebook do their work.
The Psychology of Facebook UX Design
The first Facebook UI/UX design choice that I will analyse is the infinite scroll. Designer Christian Leeds defines the infinite scroll as “a design pattern where content is fetched asynchronously from a database or master file and inserted into the user’s page as they consume the information” (Leeds, 2014). Or, simply, an endless page that constantly loads new content as you reach the bottom of the interface, or at the top of the interface, when you pull down. It’s a common design choice in the world of mobile apps, particularly for social media.
As with the majority of design matters, it is not a frivolous choice. In fact, the infinite scroll employs a number of design techniques borrowed from the design of gambling slot machines. Using our finger to pull down on the screen, and trigger the infinite scroll to create more content, mirrors the action of pulling the lever on a slot machine in order to begin a new turn. Madrigal writes “what Facebook and slot machines share is the ability to provide fast feedback to simple actions; they deliver tiny rewards on an imperfectly predictable “payout” schedule” (Madrigal, 2013). The Facebook newsfeed delivers an infinite stream of micro-rewards and micro-dissatisfactions, and the only way to see which you get is to keep scrolling. A recent Vox Media video, titled ‘It’s not you. Phones are designed to be addicting’, examined this from another perspective, arguing that the act of “pulling down to refresh” gives the user the feeling of control, making them feel like the masters of their own experience, as they are the ones instigating the action (Vox, 2018). This feeling of control is an illusion, however. The Facebook designers could have the newsfeed auto-refresh – existing technology certainly allows them to do this. But by offering you a sense of control, they are able to keep you scrolling for longer, as you hold the false sense that because you are the active party, you could actively stop at any time. This breeds a culture of passive consumption and addictive behaviour, rooted in a simple scrolling mechanism.
Slot machines are the most profitable part of any casino, often accounting for 70 to 80% of total revenue (Thompson, 2015). They are so profitable because they are so hard to stop playing. Facebook UX designers (and a large number of major social network product designers) have seen this, and built the principles that cause this addictive behaviour into the apps that we use on a daily basis. The relationship between design choice and prescriptive behaviour is clear: an infinite scroll leads the user to spend more time on the app. More time on the app, equates to more advertising revenue for Facebook. Individual behaviour is modified as the result of a seemingly innocuous design choice, and where individual behaviour is altered there is the potential for run-on societal change, a notion which will be discussed in more detail further in this paper.
The second design choice I want to address is the use of the colour red for notification alerts. If you own an iPhone, you will notice that all of the small bubbles that hover over apps to indicate that you have a new notification are red.
This is a stylistic choice for psychological, rather than aesthetic impact. In the ‘Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction’ published in 1988, researchers found that red contained certain important properties in a visual interface. They report “if the colours are balanced, then red seems to come forward”, and “high chroma red alerts seem to aid faster response than yellow or yellow-orange” (Helander, 1988). If you place the colour red in historical context, this design choice makes a lot of sense. For decades, the phrase “red alert” has prompted immediate attention, ‘BREAKING NEWS’ has been fed to us in red typeface, and the stop signs that monitor our driving are all a vivid shade of red. These are only a few of the many examples of red being associated with danger and immediate response. When a new notification pops up on your phone, your brain releases a similar set of neurotransmitters (particularly cortisol and dopamine) that would be released during a moment of alarm or immediate danger, drawing our attention away from the task at hand towards our phones (Hosie, 2017). Here, the design choice (making notifications red) prompts a shift of our attention from our current stimulus to our phone interface. Colour is serving a functional rather than artistic purpose, though this purpose is all but invisible to the user.
So what does this actually mean for individual and societal behaviour? In 2018, more than ever before, our interaction with the physical world is mediated by technology. A significant portion of our daily activities are technology-aided or technology-led, from exercising with a FitBit, to documenting our meals in an Instagram story, all the way to maintaining contact with our loved ones through FaceTime. This mediation process is concentrated in the smartphone, in large part due to the mass of high-quality content produced as a result of the democratisation of mobile app development (Blacharski, 2016). Today, 66.5% of the global population owns a smartphone, and projections for the next five years expect at least 7% annual growth in this figure (Molla, 2017). Our smartphone dependence is shifting the ways in which we interact with the world and with each other on a mass scale, requiring a paradigm shift in the way that we contemplate human social behaviours.
An increasingly researched area is the role of phone addiction on mental health. Addiction is defined by Oxford English Dictionary as being “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance” (‘Addiction’, 2018), and historically has been associated with objectively detrimental behaviours, like gambling or drug use. Today, behavioural shifts indicate that the word should be attached to a new field: smartphones. A 2016 study carried out by Common Sense Media found that 50% of teenagers felt “addicted” to their devices and 78% checked their smartphones at least every hour (Common Sense Media, 2016). Two professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management decided to conduct their own investigation into smartphone addiction, in which they had graduate students participate in a one-day long “unplugged experience”, where they were without their phones and any other form of technology for a 24 hour period. They repeated this experiment multiple times between 2015 and 2017 and found that the most common responses were “anxiety”, “guilt”, and “a loss of sense of safety” (Russo et al., 2017), all words which would not be out of place in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
In today’s highly-addictive, notification-driven culture, the detrimental effects on mental health and wellbeing are beginning to be understood. In a 2015 study, researchers examined the physiological response of students when “unable to answer their iPhone while performing cognitive tasks” (Clayton et al., 2015). Firstly, that such a study exists indicates the severity of the problem, but matters only look more grim when the results are examined. Among the effects on participants from temporary iPhone separation were heart rate and blood pressure increases, decreased cognitive performance, as well as self-reported spikes in anxiety (Clayton et al., 2015). In a groundbreaking 2017 paper, researchers found a statistically significant correlation between increased rates of depression and suicide-related outcomes in adolescents and time spent on “new media devices”, with youth who spent more time on their smartphones more likely to suffer from mental health issues (Tweng et al., 2017). This is only the beginning of research into the effects of smartphone addiction, but preliminary research presents a harrowing picture for the future.
These effects are operating on a mass scale given the ⅔ of the global population who own smartphones, and exist not in isolation but as part of a complex web of social networks that amplify individual behavioural changes. Ironically, the framework of the “social network” is useful here to elucidate the societal implications of dangerous design choices. If you view one user as a node within a network, connected to a set number of other nodes through social connections, who in turn are connected to their own set of social connections, the mechanism through which social change occurs becomes clear.
An individual behavioural change (i.e more time spent scrolling through the Facebook app), is likely to have tangential effects on the behaviour of the closest nodes in the network which in turn affects the closest nodes in their network systems, as per ‘network theory’ (Owen-Smith, 2014). Now that these networks are becoming increasingly virtual, the scale and speed at which individual behavioural change can catalyse societal change is exponentially greater.
Another useful framework with which to consider this problem is the theory of ontological design. A leading thinker in ontological design, Anne-Marie Willis, defines the theory as “a hermeneutics of design concerned with the nature and of the agency of design” which postulates the idea that “we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us” (Willis, 2006). The mobile apps that we design, in turn design our behaviours and our worlds, and then our worlds in turn impact the way we design future iterations of our apps. It’s an infinite feedback loop, that makes deafeningly clear the significance of design.
Defense Against Design
Willis argues that “design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognised by designers, cultural theorists, philosophers or lay persons”, and it is under these words of caution that I will bring the field of design ethics into the frame. Ethical designing is designing to inform rather than manipulate, an approach to design that is founded on a set of guiding ethical principles. It’s become such an important area that some companies are even employing ‘Design Ethicists’ to maintain design integrity at their firm, a decision that Google made when they made Tristan Harris their Design Ethicist in 2013 (Klein, 2018). Harris speaks of how companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are competing in “a zero-sum race for our finite attention”, and thus design non-neutral products, instead building systems “designed to addict us” (Harris, 2018). Ethical designing is about neutrality, prompting specific behaviours but in transparent, non-harmful ways.
Design is the ultimate invisible art form, made with the intention of creating behavioural change. The same artistic principles of form, colour, and line are moulded not for artistic value, but as drivers of behaviour. UI/UX designers are artisans of people rather than products, crafting desired responses rather than visual interfaces. As individual and societal consumers of this technology, I see two main responses to this tacit manipulation. Firstly, it is imperative to pay attention to our own experience with the technology we interact with, looking for instances where our behaviour deviates from our intentions, or where we feel swayed in an unintended direction. From this place of attention comes the ability to hold these companies responsible for their design choices, and proclaim loudly when their choices constitute a net social loss. Secondly, there are measures we can take to proactively defend against invisible design. Actions such as deactivating notifications, turning our displays to grayscale to neutralise the impact of colour, reserving your home screen for only practical tools can all help to decrease the impact of the design choices made by Facebook and Twitter. In a world where social change is driven in large part by invisible artists, now more than ever is the time to learn how they work.